Baseball teams can find motivation under any rock or behind any tree. Maybe it’s a quote in the paper. Maybe it’s a SportsCenter segment. Maybe it’s a talk radio scorcher.
Or if you’re the 2021 Red Sox, maybe it’s the MLB.com power rankings.
Before the Red Sox faced the Mets and right-hander Jacob deGrom, aka The Best Pitcher on Earth, on Wednesday, manager Alex Cora was joking around with shortstop Xander Bogaerts.
“We beat this guy,” Cora told him, “we might be No. 1 in the nation.”
It turns out that to the list of idiosyncrasies that already includes tunnel time in the home run laundry cart and waving into the dugout like exuberant middle schoolers, the Red Sox can add a college-style infatuation with their national ranking.
The Red Sox opened the season ranked 20th on MLB.com’s list, and not even Cora could be offended by that. They were coming off a last-place finish and hadn’t made any sexy splashes in free agency.
When they reeled off six straight wins after being swept by the Orioles to open the season, however, they expected a little more love. And yet when the first rankings of the regular season were released with the Red Sox 6-3 and leading the American League East, they ranked . . . 20th. Again.
This, the Red Sox noticed.
“We have our own inside joke about power rankings, all that stuff,” Cora said. “We treat it like college baseball. I told Xander before the game, we beat this guy, we might be No. 1 in the nation in the upcoming days. It’s just silly stuff, but they know.”
Clearly, the Red Sox are feeling themselves, because after beating deGrom and the Mets on Wednesday in a flawless 1-0 shutout, Cora sounded like someone who’s willing to acknowledge how good his team is. A 16-9 start against a parade of either first-place or defending playoff clubs (and the Orioles) will do that.
“We just feel we’re a good baseball team,” he said. “We’ve been feeling this for a while. We have room to improve. There’s a lot of stuff we have to keep going. I think defense, solid, the at-bats the last week, we need to get better. But we just feel we have a good baseball team.”
It is finally reflected in the power rankings, although that’s a point of contention for Cora, too. The week after holding steady at 20, the Red Sox soared all the way to third. They have since dropped one spot to fourth.
“I went to college,” Cora said. “I know how it works. I don’t know how we jumped from 20 in the nation to No. 4. That’s a big jump. I don’t know who was voting in that. I went to Miami and that’s not possible. You can’t go from 20 to No. 4 in just one week. That’s not true.”
As Cora recalls from his college days, national rank is really only about seeding. What matters is who’s crowned champion. In 1996, his Hurricanes lost the College World Series to LSU on a walk-off homer by Warren Morris that left Cora face down in the dirt at second in disbelief.
He has since scaled the mountaintop to claim titles as a player (2007 Red Sox), coach (2017 Astros) and manager (2018 Red Sox).So while he’d like to see his Red Sox reach No. 1, what really matters is reaching that October tournament and being the last team standing.